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On Regular Writing

August 16, 2012

As I sit here at my desk, waiting for DHL to deliver a box of Mindjammer paperbacks for us to mail out to reviewers, I’ve been musing over how, after the relative chaos of the past couple of months, I’m finally getting back down to my regular writing routine. And how vital that routine is to me for producing a reliable wordcount every month – and manuscripts to a reliable schedule.

I wonder how many other people write like this? I split my day into sections. The first comes immediately after I wake up, usually about 7.30am, seasonally adjusted (earlier in summer, later in winter), and grab my first cup of tea. About 15 minutes after waking, I find I’m both calm and concentrated – nothing about the day to come is invading my space at the moment, I’m not hooked up to the internet, in fact I’m still lying in bed. That’s when my most creative period begins.

Hey, it worked for Proust…!

Usually I use that window for writing fiction. It lasts about 2 hours before the day begins to impinge – as I’m in France, I’m an hour ahead of the UK time zone, so by about 10am my time people are starting to turn up to their desks at 9am in the UK, and the world starts to creep into my thoughts. Before that, though – there’s this delicious period of time, almost like the “Third Place” you go into when you’re travelling long distance, when I’m isolated, adrift from the run of things, and my mind is my own.

Those two hours usually net me about 1000 words. Handwritten, in pencil, on sheets of A4 – usually the reverse side of the bound pages of the current manuscript I’m working on. Much later, once I’ve accumulated a decent quantity of pages – usually enough for several chapters – I’ll go and type them up, then print them out and bind them into a new draft manuscript. Then I’ll start scribbling on the back of those pages, and the process will continue.

Yeah, right. This is me *exactly*…

Although I’ve been typing pretty much all my life, I still find writing by hand to be the most intimate, most direct method for me. Maybe it’s the apparent lack of intermediary – it’s my brain, telling my fingers to drag that stick of graphic across the page – maybe it’s just the quiet scrape of lead on paper, I don’t know. But it’s the nearest I’ve come to directly imprinting my thoughts on the page. I’m writing this blog on my laptop write now – but fiction, I always seem to write by hand.

So, by 10am I’m usually down in front of the computer to begin the day, 9am UK time. For years and years as I worked as a City bod, I used to commute 3 hours a day. Up at 5.40am, out of the house 7.10am, arrive in London 8.30am, get to the office by 9am. Then the same in reverse in the evening – and that was when the trains ran on time. Often they didn’t – and still don’t – and my commute could stretch to 2 or even 3 hours each way. I often tried to write in those periods – but standing up on a packed and sweaty commuter train was never conducive to creativity for me, and when I look back on the reams of paper I covered then with anxious scrawls, my writing seems stilted, formulaic, distracted.

Happy days…

Now I’m over the moon to not commute. My old commuting time is now my writing time, and I enjoy it like it’s something I paid for over a decade of earning my commuter spurs.

From 10am till midday I cover admin – emails, voice calls, invoices, bills, what have you. There’s always enough – in fact, there’s always too much – but I satisfy myself with doing the essentials during those two hours. Experience has taught me you should never try to clear your desk; otherwise, that becomes your job, and your actual job takes second place. Before you know it, all you’re doing is paperchasing, and nothing else gets done. The electronic age has become expert at generating chaff to occupy your day with meaningless robotic admin. Resist!

Then a quick lunch. Usually very quick; I sometimes try and get outside for a walk round, too, although this summer’s endless rain has mocked my ambitions. In any case, by 1pm I’ve sat down for my afternoon shift – roleplaying writing!

That goes through till 6pm. That’s 5 hours, of writing, editing, mapping, stat blocks, even sometimes layout and proofing. Whatever it takes, to work on the next manuscript. At a good rate, I find I can do at least 1000-3000 words in that period, and often more, research and the nature of the work depending. Added to the 1000 fiction in the morning, and assuming that I’m going to spend time re-writing and editing what I’ve written, that puts me at 10,000 words a week. 40,000 words a month, every month, is my constant goal. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I figure if that’s my average, and the stuff I’m writing is up to scratch, then I’m winning. That last point is crucial for me, too: it’s easy to write more words of poorer quality. That’s the eternal balance; I find I spend at least as long re-writing and editing my stuff as I do writing it in the first place, and that obviously affects my average wordcount. I get the feeling this area is perhaps the biggest area of variation between writers.

From order there sprang chaos… or…

Then, 6pm, and my work-day ends. Well, mostly. Often, later in the evening, during my reading period before lights-out, I reach for some research. In fact, I usually reach for some research. When I’m writing a long fiction piece (ie most of the time), I usually find my evening reading is mostly non-fiction to support what I’m writing – there always seems to be loads of research, whether it’s cosmology and astro-stuff for Mindjammer, cultural and military history for Cthulhu, art, design, philosophy, for Chronicles, whatever – there’s always something I want to assimilate for the next piece I’m writing. For that reason, I usually take 2 months off between long fiction pieces, during which time I fling myself with abandon into reading whatever fiction I like, and do no research. Those eight weeks, usually once a year at the mo, are my time for catching up on all the books I want to read. And, of course, it’s never enough. You can’t read everything.

That’s my method, such as it is. Forming Mindjammer Press over the past couple of months has disrupted that cycle, but it’s now beginning to assert itself again, and the wordcount is beginning to flow. Perhaps it’s the old commuter and breadhead discipline kicking in, but I find I need those restrictions and frameworks to “write my words”. I wonder if there’s anyone out there who writes truly chaotically? I know I did when I wrote my first long fiction piece, over 20 years ago. 50,000 words, took me nearly a year, and exhausted me utterly. But I’m sure we all have our own magics for summoning the muse.

What’s yours?

Sarah Newton
Normandy
16th August 2012

Check out the new novel Mindjammer at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk!

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